Legal Aid of the District of Columbia today issued the following statement after the DC Council voted to approve its final fiscal year 2024 budget, which will restore funding for civil legal services and emergency rental assistance for low-income residents to 2023 levels. It now goes to the Mayor for her signature.
The restoration of these funds followed vocal efforts from legal services providers, including Legal Aid DC, reinforcing that the funds directly impact the number of poor District residents – most Black and brown – they are able to help. These vital programs enable Legal Aid and other legal services providers to continue to support residents experiencing poverty, including by providing critical legal services to prevent eviction.
“Legal Aid DC is grateful to Chairman Mendelson and the entire Council for renewing the District’s commitment to serving families living in poverty and with housing insecurity,” said Vikram Swaruup, Executive Director of Legal Aid of the District of Columbia. “Every day we work to help District residents who face unfair evictions and abusive debt collection practices, need help to stay safe from domestic violence, and need support accessing government benefits like food assistance to feed their families. The demand for legal services continues to grow – compared to a year ago, calls for our help in eviction, debt collection, and food stamps cases have doubled in the first part of this year. Legal Aid can only take these cases to provide life-impacting legal services for residents because the Council invests in these programs. We greatly appreciate that the Council sees how critical our work is, and we strongly encourage the Mayor to sign this budget.”
The Council’s budget passed in the first round of voting on May 16, marking a substantial victory for legal service providers and a sigh of relief for families battling poverty and eviction across the District.
As part of the budget released in March, the Mayor had proposed a 60% cut to the Access to Justice program, which helps ensure District residents facing significant legal challenges can get legal services. Those cuts would have reduced funding for the program from approximately $31 million in 2023 to $13 million in 2024. The majority of Legal Aid’s budget to pay attorneys who provide legal services for residents comes from these funds, which help pay for 46 lawyers and professionals – about half of the employees at the organization. The funding ultimately helps nearly 5,000 clients per year get the legal assistance they need from Legal Aid DC. Every dollar invested in civil legal services can yield a return of approximately $7 in economic benefits.
The Mayor’s proposed budget would have also reduced funding for the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) from $43 million to $8 million, reducing a crucial safety net for tenants experiencing poverty. This year, the $43 million allocated to ERAP lasted less than six months. (The Council appropriated an additional $33 million to emergency rental assistance for 2023 through a supplemental budget). Legal Aid will continue to advocate for additional funding for 2024 since the restored funding will likely be exhausted before the end of the year.
The Council also voted to boost nutritional-assistance benefits, should revenues exceed current projections. The federal government reduced those benefits earlier this year, and the debt-limit bill Congress is considering further scales back the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program.
“We are grateful that the Council recognized the importance of investing in food assistance for our neighbors living in poverty,” Swaruup said. “We urge the Council to continue to find ways to boost these critical benefits, particularly as the federal government has scaled back on nutritional assistance. We also hope the Council finds additional funding throughout 2024 for rental assistance because even after boosts from the Council, those funds will be exhausted, as they were in 2023, long before the end of the year.”
Legal Aid forcefully advocated against these cuts, testifying at multiple Council hearings regarding the proposed cuts to the Access to Justice program and ERAP to reinforce the dire impact the cuts would have on legal service providers and District residents they serve.